By Jolovan Wham
Oglivy and Mather’s latest campaign, ‘Mums Vs Maids’ has hit a raw nerve among many. In the video, mothers are given a series of questions to answer to test how well they know their children. Whether it is their favourite food, colour or who their best friend is, the mums in the video invariably get the answers wrong, whereas their domestic workers are able to answer these questions accurately. The video ends with the message that mothers should give their domestic workers a day off and spend more time with their children.
As others have pointed out, the video shames parents and is sexist by portraying women only. Fathers are somehow not tested about whether they know their children well or not.
When Oglivy and Mather first approached Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME), the NGO I work for with the video, I thought it was provocative and would spark off a debate about how shocking it was that despite the fact that the government has legislated a weekly day off for domestic workers, the majority of women still do not enjoy this basic labour right. In a study conducted by HOME and released in March this year, we found that only 40% of the domestic workers we surveyed enjoyed a weekly day off. And even so, many of these women probably did not enjoy 24 hours of uninterrupted rest. A large number are probably expected to finish their chores before they go out, or return home by evening to cook dinner, run errands and perform other household work.
As much as the video promotes a laudable message, it was doing so at the expense of working mothers who face tremendous stress juggling work and child minding at the same time. Working mums are always under pressure: not only are they expected to be career women and do their part to support their families financially, they are also expected to be nurturing, sacrificial and devoted to their children. In a patriarchal culture, it is perfectly acceptable for fathers to be absent or play a much lesser role in their child’s development. What the video fails to do is show how the mother’s plight is actually intimately tied to the low status of domestic work and the devaluation of the domestic worker. Child minding has low value because it is perceived as labour which does not require much skill, and is supposed to come naturally to women. This is why it is socially acceptable for fathers to be uninvolved in bringing up their kids and for mothers to bear the brunt of it. Because of its association with women’s traditional and historical role as mothers, domestic workers are paid exploitative wages, and their work is poorly regulated.
Any meaningful analysis of why domestic work is undervalued and why domestic workers are exploited requires an approach which dismantles the assumptions of patriarchy. But by pitting middle class and working class women against one another, the video creates a false dichotomy when the real target should be a culture which privileges masculine roles over feminine ones. Reinforcing sexism to liberate working class women feels like a case of one step forwards and two steps back. To talk about the rights of domestic workers requires us to at least recognise how sexism and patriarchy oppresses middle class and working class women, which the Mums Vs Maids video failed to do. Instead, it ended up reinforcing gender stereotypes.
It need not be the case that we achieve our equality by pitting one group of women against another. Solidarity is a practice which recognises how our lives and experiences are an intricate intersection of gender roles, gender identity, race, class, ability, and other aspects of our social identity which impact on us as individuals and on one another as allies in struggle.
We cannot isolate one aspect of our identity, or look at one issue at the exclusion of other things. For a physically able feminist to talk about gender role conformity to a woman with disabilities requires her to show solidarity with her on how ableism creates physical and social barriers to those who are not born with the privilege to move around freely. We cannot talk about the oppression of LGBT individuals without also showing support for racial and ethnic minorities in their fights for justice.
As NGOs or individuals concerned about social change, we tend to be very narrowly focused on our own issues or what our organisations represent. Solidarity with one another requires a sense of awareness beyond that. This is not easy to achieve as we are often socialized by dominant cultural norms which requires critical thinking in order to unravel culturally coded assumptions. The result of this is that sometimes we we fail to find commonalities with other marginalised groups and fail to connect our concerns with other types of oppression. How do we advocate together even though we inhabit different spaces, represent different issues or come from different socio-economic backgrounds? How do we bridge seemingly unrelated concerns and find solidarity in our activism?
Oppression is complex and multi-faceted and how one group of persons is marginalized often works in collusion with other forms of subjugation. Only when we identify the commonalities in our oppressions, can we start working together for equality and liberation.